The recent killings across the USA have saddened me deeply. I can’t write this grief. Instead I will present a tribute to a great man. A simple peasant who rose to the pinnacle of heroism for his country…many times over. His reward for this greatness? The loss of everything dear to him.
I’ve remembered more about Ďung Lam since I first started to record these memoirs. The people of Vietnam were perhaps the most industrious folks I ever met. Ďung and his family were no exception. I regret his losses as much as mine and I wish I had brought him through. God bless you Ďung wherever you are. This is my tribute to him:
01APR72: Ďung Lam was born in Bien Hoa City in the summer of 1949, before it was anything more than a moderate sized fishing and Agra-suburb of Saigon in post World War II, French controlled Indochina. He and his father and brothers knew nothing but poverty, rice farming, fishing, war and loss.
Ďung became my friend for a short time while he healed and then while he began training a new Platoon that would soon join in the slaughter on the Cambodian border. They were part of the ARVN 25th Infantry Division. Hard chargers going toe to toe with the NVA’s 5TH Infantry Division in the real badlands.
He was at the infirmary getting a cast removed when I visited those hallowed grounds of healing for jungle rot treatment. I hadn’t been in the jungle up to that point though so, go figure. This was carrying April Fools a little far if you ask me.
Something he said has stuck with me all these years. When I asked him what keeps him going, he said, “I am not sure sometimes. I know only that I wonder if I will come home this time. I wonder if I will bring back more than one this time. I wonder If it will be that hateful maniac, Lt. Trang, my CO again. I wonder if I can stand to survive again if I do. I have only my family and my freedom. These I will not allow to fall while I live. So I fight.”
This perfectly reflects the despair apparent in the eyes of anyone who knew that inevitably, the Republic of South Vietnam was soon to be history…and yet the people of the south did not give up until the very end…long after we left them for dead.
He and I shared some mud and some blood in the coming weeks after that conversation. He struck up the chat when he recognized my shoulder patch for the 34th Patrol Dogs. He surprised me with how well his English was.
“Is the 34th only stationed here on Bien Hoa base camp”?
After an embarrassing pause caused by my surprise I finally stuttered out an awkward “Yes sir. As far as I know, sir” as I tried to find some rank insignia that made sense to me. There was none. His uniform was bare and looked remarkably very much like mine if not very new. ARVN usually wore older style fatigues or tigers cammies.
“Oh, there’s no “sir” here, soldier. Just Sergeant will do.” As he smoothed his tunic front he continued, “Your medics graciously gave me these to replace my rags. Is that why you are nervous? You do not like officers? I hear very terrible things about how some of you treat you’re officer’s and NCOs. My own CO is an idiot, but I would never raise a hand to him. I do not understand this.”
“No, sir. ..I mean Sarge, er, Sergeant. It’s just your English is perfect, man. I mean Sarge…ah, shit”.
“Sarge is good too, at least in front of others, okay? My name is Ďung. I know. Dung is shit where you come from. I did four years at USC. I know dung. But, my name is different. With my name in Vietnamese you pronounce this “d” more guttural with the tongue on top of the mouth almost like clucking, and the “u” has hard u sound as in tune.”
“”Sarge” might be easier” he said with a question in his voice and a smirk on his kisser.
Daring to be exotic I blurted out a pretty decent version of his name without sounding like I was about to hurl, introducing myself as “Shorty”. By then it had become wrote, everyone called me Shorty, even my CO. He smiled and said, “So, about the 34th. If you are in the same unit then we will likely be working together soon. Are you a dog handler, Shorty?”
“Yes I am but I haven’t heard anything about working with ARVN. You are ARVN, right?”
“Yes, ARVN. I am rebuilding 1st Platoon, C company, 3rd Battalion, 25th infantry division. We will be conducting sweeps around the base trying to root out your sapper problem. This will help train my troops also. They are not much more than teens recently coming out from their village homes and mother’s arms. They act tough but are terrified, I know. Working at night with you around here will help get them past those fears and give them a chance to live past their next birthday, I hope.”
“Damn! Well I’ve never been outside the wire Sarge so I can’t say for sure that I won’t be any less afraid than they are. Maybe we’ll learn together.”
“Yes, that will do also. A true allied effort. Ha!”
We talked on about the war and his family’s part in it. What I heard was a rehashing of the terrible consequence of brother against brother across some invisible line of blood. We talked about his family up north of Haiphong Harbor. About the day the “light went out in their family” as half a dozen died in the intense fighting in and around Khe Sanh during Tet ’68. Four on the side of the north and two from the south.
We argued about the US’ diminishing role and finally how long before we thought the Americans would go home; leaving Vietnam, north and south, to sort themselves out. ..after so many dead. He not believing we would leave and me wishing for his sake that we wouldn’t, but knowing we would. I admitted how disillusioned I felt by what was to me our obvious betrayal of the South Vietnamese people. I confessed that most of my soldier friends didn’t see why we were still there at all. We talked about his crazy boss and how he prayed the medical honchos would retire him as unfit. Then we talked some more about family. Me and my crazy drunk bunch of fighters and my equally crazy married life, him and his huge local family including many very young nieces and nephews all living in the walled compound on the outskirts of Bien Hoa, reserved for ARVN NCOs and their families. One notch in poverty lower than the Officer’s compound. In spite of the abject despair these folks lived in, I would be hard pressed to find a more supportive, together family than the Lam’s. Sadly without the US base nearby for them to work on, they would be living in even worse conditions.
Lam was a little bit lucky too. He was Catholic and was the first in his family to graduate from a Catholic High School. The School and their patrons paid for Lam to spend four years at USC. He studied agriculture and mechanical engineering. When his four years were up the government in the south wasted no time in conscripting him but because of his low-caste in society, his degree meant nothing and he was made an enlisted infantryman. He excelled and made NCO within 2 short years proving himself in combat time and again on the Cambodian border. HIs success was wearing on him and you could tell.
When the company clerk came to transport me back to our company I offered Ďung a ride to the east gate. He gladly accepted. He would have had to walk otherwise. It was a short hike to his home from the Army’s east gate.
I didn’t see him again for a week or so but sure enough we worked the first official dual-nation sapper sweep patrol around Bien Hoa base camp on 07APR72.